Walmart Shelves Emptied in Food Stamp Shopping Spree

Louisiana officials are trying to decide what to do about a massive shopping spree by families on food stamps when a power outage lifted the caps on their spending cards.

Police were called to Walmart locations in Mansfield, La., and Springhill, La., on Saturday as shoppers cleaned out store shelves.

Springhill Police Chief Will Lynd said some customers were pushing more food than any household could store in a refrigerator and freezer.

"I saw people drag out eight to ten grocery carts," he said.

Lynd said customers were "not unruly." There were no fights or arrests made, but the scene was still chaotic, he said.

"It was definitely worse than Black Friday. It was worse than anything we had ever seen in this town," Lynd said of Springhill, which is near the border with Arkansas. "There was no food left on any of the shelves, and no meat left. The grocery part of Walmart was totally decimated."

He said one customer made about $700 in food purchases.

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Lynd said that around 9 p.m. CT on Saturday, a Walmart employee made an announcement on the intercom saying that the computer system had been restored and card limits had returned. At that time, customers left shopping carts full of food in store aisles.

"At that point in time, they knew the jig was up and they couldn't purchase what they wanted to," Lynd said.

In the Walmart store in Mansfield, about 80 miles south of Springhill, staff temporarily closed the store to new customers to prevent a fire hazard with the existing number of shoppers.

Mansfield's chief of police Gary Hobbs said no arrests were made and there were no incidents besides customers "pushing and shoving." Hobbs said there were reports that customers were checking out with six to eight shopping carts, then returning later in the day to purchase more.

Unlike Walmart, other grocery stores in town told customers they would not accept EBT cards until the card limits were evident again, Hobbs said.

The Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, said the issue was not related to the government shutdown.

The Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services' spokesman Trey Williams said the agency is meeting today to discuss how to handle the issue.

The shopping frenzy was triggered when the Electronic Benefits Transfer system went down because a back-up generator failed at 11 a.m. EST Saturday during a regularly-scheduled test, according to Xerox, a vendor for the EBT system and based in Norwalk, Conn.

The outage allowed recipients to spend unlimited amounts of money because the spending limit was removed for their EBT cards.

The EBT system was affected in 17 states, where individuals and households access programs like Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and other programs.

"The loss of power triggered a preventative shutdown of the EBT system to protect its overall integrity," according to a statement from Xerox spokesman Kevin Lightfoot. "While the system was restored within 22 minutes, the network experienced connectivity issues until our technical staff were able to re-establish full access just before 10 p.m. EST."

Lynd said the Springhill Walmart store manager called police on Saturday morning to ask for advice over crowd control. When he arrived, Lynd told the Walmart staff that they had the right to refuse service if they chose to, but Walmart's corporate office advised the store to allow customers to purchase what they wanted with the cards.

A spokeswoman for Walmart, Kayla Whaling, said the frenzied shopping in Louisiana "was isolated and is not representative of the what our stores experienced across the country."

Xerox said that it continues to "investigate the cause of the issue so we can take steps to ensure a similar interruption does not re-occur."

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A spokeswoman for Xerox, Jennifer Wasmer, said, "If there is an EBT system outage, there is an agreed and documented process for retailers to follow. The process includes a 'per cardholder, per day' spending limit that is set at a state level."

In Louisiana, the limit is $50 per cardholder per day, she said.

"The emergency process allows retailers to meet the critical food needs of cardholders even if the system is temporarily down," she said.

When asked about reports that Walmart customers were spending hundreds of dollars more than their account limits, Wasmer said ABC News would have to speak to retailers.

Walmart did not respond to a question about whether its Louisiana stores recognized a $50 limit.

ABC News' Gitika Kaul contributed to this report.

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